Dec. 6, 2010
Rabbi Gabby Dagan is the rabbi of the Reform congregation Ohel Avraham in Haifa, and the rabbi of the junior-high section at the city’s Leo Baeck Education Center
To you, Lord, I call, for fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness and flames have burned up all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals pant for you; the streams of water have dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness.
At noon on Friday, as the flames were still soaring high and the fire had not been consumed, I received a phone call from the front-line command center for the fire at Haifa University. “We want to light Hanukkah candles for the forces who are out working in the field all the time. We also need plenty of doughnuts.” Members of Ohel Avraham Reform congregation collect over 300 doughnuts, a large Chanukiya, and a guitar, and we head off for the burning heart of the Carmel Forests. There, among the police cars, ambulances, media personnel, and politicians, we lit the candles for the third night of Hanukkah.
It is difficult, if not impossible, not to see a connection between the nature of this festival, with its miracle of fire and its triumph of the spirit, and the flames that burn just a few meters away, as the human spirit battles the spirits of nature. Strength and might combat the evil wind, and the human spirit struggles with the all-consuming flame.
My father was a fireman for over forty years. The colors of the uniforms and the sight of blackened nature are not new to me. I stood there proud, fearful, and weeping for the loss of human life and for the victory of the Jewish and Israeli spirit. “Bless us,” we sang, as we lit candles for the wounded, the dead, and the struggling.
Just a few hours later, on Saturday morning, a Bar Mitzva ceremony was held in Ohel Avraham synagogue. A few minutes before the ceremony began, one of the guests told me that Elad Riven, a young school student from Haifa and a friend of the family, had died in the fire. It was not clear to the family that the ceremony should go ahead in such circumstances.
Once again, we must cross familiar and unfamiliar boundaries of joy marred by profound sadness. We said the “Shehechiyanu” prayer for the young boy who had just become a man, and with the same breath and the same tears we said Kaddish for those who will celebrate no more. The Bar Mitzva boy’s speech was transformed from the usual blend of optimism and naivety to the burning reality we faced. We celebrated, and we wept.
On Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, students from Leo Baeck Education Center packed hundreds of food parcels for the firemen and for the families of school students from Usafiya, Daliyat al-Carmel, the Carmel Coast region, and the Dania neighborhood of Haifa. The showers at the community center were opened up to the security forces, offering a brief chance for them to relax and clean themselves. At such times, our lives are guided by the needs of families who have experienced and are still experiencing loss.
As the fire subsides, so too does the joy of the festival. Prayers for rain make way for prayers for healing. In such days, the concept of “family” extends to Israeli society in its entirety – Jews, Druze, and Arabs alike. The head coverings of women from the Druze village of Usafiya and the religious Jewish Kibbutz Nir Etzion are used to shield the face from the toxic smoke, as the fire burns all of our houses – without distinction.
Today we lower our heads and ponder on the small spark that lit a great darkness. We pray that this fire will come to an end, and we pray for the injured and those brave individuals who gave their lives to save others.